On 15 January, 11 Iranian ballistic missiles hit the town of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. The same day, also fired by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, four missiles hit a target near the town of Taltita, in the Syrian province of Idlib. Finally, still coming from Iran, fire hit Pakistani soil in the Baluchistan region, prompting Islamabad to retaliate two days later.
The attack on Erbil killed four people, including a well-known businessman, Peshraw Dizayee; the attack on Taltita is believed to have targeted Daech (Islamic State) dating sites and destroyed a clinic; the fire against Pakistan killed two children.
At first sight, one wonders whether the Iranian authorities have lost their senses: to attack three neighbouring countries at the same time, and countries reputed to be friends of Iran, is to run the risk of provoking a de facto military alliance against Tehran. This seems suicidal.
To understand this, we need to analyse the nature of the targets.
As we said, in Erbil, the Iranians attacked a Kurdish businessman. They destroyed his house and killed several members of his family, including his daughter, who was about to turn one. They claimed to have attacked an “Israeli spy centre”. The claim is not very credible but, as we shall see below, was not made by chance.
In Taltita, the declared target was Daech. The terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack on 3 January, carried out in Iran during a ceremony commemorating the assassination by the Americans of Qasem Soleimani, former head of the Al Quds force attached to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Revenge was the motive for this operation.
As for the offensive launched in Pakistani Baluchistan, it hit an Iranian Baluch terrorist group based in Pakistan. Islamabad’s response on Iranian soil, on the other hand, killed at least 10 separatists of the same ethnic group but of Pakistani nationality. There are Baluchi demands on both sides of the border, and the intelligence services of both countries are exploiting the neighbouring rebels.
In Pakistani Baluchistan, Iran is also responding to armed opponents, the men of the Jaish al-Dhulm, who only a month ago killed 11 Iranian policemen in their post.
At the first level of analysis, we note targets that can all be identified with the “terrorist” category, according to Teheran’s official assessment. The pro-independence Baluchis and, of course, the people of Daech, a point on which, for the latter, there will be no dispute with the West.
But also the Kurds, even if Iran fights on its soil against other movements (PDKI, KOMALA and PJAK) when it confronts this ethnic group, also because of separatist claims. Teheran has also repeatedly bombed “its” Kurds in their camps in Iraq.
Attacking targets reputed to be terrorists allows Teheran to fuel its rhetoric in this area by presenting itself as a state that is a victim of terrorism and not, as Israel claims, itself a terrorist.
Nevertheless, when the Revolutionary Guards attacked Erbil, in the Kurdish zone, on January 15, as mentioned above, they also did so by claiming to be shelling “an Israeli spy center”. But what of it? Let’s move on to the second level of analysis.
The region is dominated by the PDK (Kurdistan Democratic Party). In 1946, with the help of the USSR, it founded the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad on Iranian territory. Mahabad survived only a few months, and when it collapsed, its leaders fled to the USSR until 1958, when they reappeared in Iraq, where they rose against the central power of that country.
It is true that over the years, a close relationship developed between the Iraqi KDP and the State of Israel. At first, the Israelis saw in the Kurds people like themselves fighting against the Arabs. Then they sought to use them against Saddam Hussein, who, taking over Iraq in 1979, supported the Palestinian cause.
In March 2003, after the Anglo-American attack on Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam, new links were forged between the Israelis and the autonomous region of Kurdistan, whose president is also the leader of the KDP. In particular, these links were in the security and commercial fields. It is not impossible that Dizayee, who was killed on January 15, had links with Israel. Even so, the accusation of having hosted a “Mossad spy centre” seems highly exaggerated.
However, this is not the most important point. For, whether or not Dizayee maintained close cooperation with the Israelis, Iran’s accusation is sufficient in itself to explain the attack, in the eyes of Iranian decision-makers, while at the same time indicating Teheran’s desired effect.
Indeed, by using its “proxies” in Hezbollah and Yemen against its adversaries, Teheran does not overexpose itself. But caught up in the desire to show its existence in response to the Israeli offensive in Gaza, it cannot directly attack an Israeli, or even American, target without risking unbearable, even lethal reprisals for the regime.
So, with their masterful bluntness, Iran’s decision-makers chose an Iraqi Kurd as their target. In the end, all they had to do was designate him as someone close to Israel to say that they were striking a blow against that country. But without risk.
In this second level of analysis, on reflection, we note other aspects that help us to understand the message, which is also, and no doubt primarily, addressed to the Americans. Firstly, in the three countries concerned – Pakistan, Iraq and Syria – the Americans are present in one way or another. This means saying to them: “Even when you are there, we Iranians are capable of carrying out our operations”.
In addition, the attack on Daech in Syria still appears to be a risk-free message to Washington. The Iranians took revenge for a Daech attack on Qasem Soleimani’s mausoleum. But the latter was killed by the Americans. Teheran’s way of reminding us that it never forgets.
Finally, there is a third level of analysis. From a certain point of view, it can also be considered as the first, as it will be the most obvious to Middle Eastern opinions. It’s a show of force. By striking three countries within a few hours of each other, Iran is giving itself the appearance of a major military power. Even if, on analysis, the firing of a few medium-range missiles, which are also fairly inaccurate, is no great feat. But a certain effect is achieved.
In short, the three Iranian attacks resemble a conjuring trick. We are invited to see what Teheran wants us to see. The truth remains hidden. This is far from a suicidal action; on the contrary, it’s a well-thought-out operation. As proof, after a moment of emotion, the diplomatic train resumed its course.
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